A Case Study In Incoherence
How the British Broadcasting Corporation illustrates one of humanity’s fundamental cognitive limitations
Aside from fans of the sci-fi series Doctor Who, few US citizens will have heard of the British Broadcasting Corporation, usually known by its acronym BBC. Some imagine the BBC to be a source of high-quality programming; others assume it’s simply the propaganda arm of the British government. Yet others imagine it to be a truthful source of information in an increasingly duplicitous world.
None of these beliefs are wholly true, and the reason goes all the way back to the corporation’s very beginnings.
In June 1920 the UK had its first-ever civilian radio broadcast, emitted from the factory of the Marconi Wireless Telegraph Company located in Chelmsford, a small town approximately 40km to the north-east of London. Ordinary people were very excited by the news of this event but the government was anxious, imagining that such unlicensed broadcasts would interfere with official and military operations.
As the General Post Office was responsible for licensing all forms of communication in the UK, it quickly banned any further such civilian efforts to use the airwaves. But as popular pressure mounted, the government retreated and announced that a single license would be issued to a consortium comprising all the UK wireless manufacturers, who would generate revenues from the sale of equipment to the public.
As bureaucrats are famously incapable of forward-thinking, they were blindsided by the obvious: hundreds and then thousands of people simply constructed their own wireless receivers, thus minimizing revenues flowing to Marconi and similar companies and thus making regular wireless broadcasts financially untenable.
In 1923 a Committee was set up to resolve the problem and the answer was a classic piece of bureaucracy: anyone in possession of a wireless receiver of any kind whatsoever would be subject to an annual license fee of 10 shillings, or around $460 in today’s money. The UK government clearly felt that access to something as radical as a wireless broadcast ought to be restricted to the upper-middle class.
Thus the British Broadcasting Company was born, and the notion of making people pay to receive transmissions was established.
In 1926 a General Strike was called across the UK and overnight the BBC became most people’s primary source of news aside from local gossip and rumor. This accident of history ensured that henceforth the BBC would be regarded as the primary source of official “truth” in the UK, despite it being obvious that the BBC’s version of “truth” would always be gently biased towards whatever the government of the day preferred to present. Maintaining the illusion of impartiality while in reality being a vehicle for careful propaganda enabled the BBC to gain the trust of millions.
Bad propaganda simply tells lies. That’s why no one with any functioning neurons in their prefrontal cortex believes anything that comes out of the US Republican Party and their apologists on Fox News. It’s why Soviet citizens always assumed that whatever appeared in the Party newspapers Правда and Известия was the precise opposite of truthful messages. It’s why nobody with a brain believed anything in Mussolini’s Il Popolo d’Italia and only the dullest-witted Germans took any heed of the Völkischer Beobachter. It’s why only the most abjectly stupid British read The Daily Mirror or The Daily Mail or The Sun.
Better propaganda doesn’t tell simple-minded lies for the low-IQ set. It uses the truth in a distorted way. For propaganda to be optimal, it uses a fact while carefully avoiding presentation of any other facts that would preclude the conclusion the organization wants its audience to reach.
So for example if we want to make people afraid of flying, we focus exclusively on the very rare crash and we endlessly feature tales of those who died, tales of their grieving families, and lots of pictures of the subsequent funerals. We reinforce our message: air travel is inherently lethal by omitting essential context. If people know that more than 100,000 flights take off and land without incident every single day, transporting more than 10 million around the world without harm every day of the year, that would undercut the “air travel will kill you” message. So the truth — an actual crash — results in a total misperception of real risk. Ordinary people think air travel is far more dangerous than it really is. And then, as we can’t perform consistency-checking, we still get on that cheap flight to our summer vacation destination.
That’s why a couple of years ago everyone was pleasantly terrified of autonomous vehicles. Sure, millions of miles had been covered with no incidents whatsoever, and sure, all but a couple of collisions were actually caused by human drivers slamming into robot-driven vehicles due to ordinary human incompetence, but… a woman was killed as she crossed a road, walking directly into the oncoming vehicle, and… it didn’t stop!
By avoiding all mention of the context and the overwhelming data showing the superior safety of even quite primitive autonomous systems compared to the average incompetent human driver, the media was able to generate fear of autonomous vehicles which persists to the present day.
Focusing relentlessly on one simplified message is the essence of journalism, which is also inescapably the essence of good propaganda.
The BBC used this second kind of facts-without-context propaganda during the General Strike and was so successful that the following year the British government transmuted it into the British Broadcasting Corporation. A Crown charter stipulated its duties and responsibilities, and ensured that henceforth it would remain a reliable provider of government-approved content. By presenting partial truths and avoiding controversy, the BBC coasted through the 1930s and during World War II was an invaluable resource for a beleaguered British Government whose persistent incompetence throughout the 1930s had largely ensured the inevitability of eventual large-scale conflict.
Few look back wistfully to the days of Правда and the Völkischer Beobachter, but many British people to this day incorrectly regard wartime BBC broadcasts with misplaced nostalgia, which goes to show how successful this kind of propaganda can be.
If the BBC had remained a monopoly, life would have been sweet and easy. Unfortunately, as the decades rolled by, clever people invented new technologies. In the 1960s television sets became widely available. Naturally the BBC was the first UK broadcaster. Here was another reason for people to pay their (increased) license fee: flickering pictures!
As the only broadcaster, the BBC had to cater to a wide range of tastes. Mostly aiming at the middle-class, the BBC nevertheless went downmarket to cater for the less educated and less sophisticated palate and churned out atrociously heavy-handed comedies and broadcast a range of sporting events.
And then came the commercial broadcasters.
In 1955 the first commercial TV channel was licensed. In the 1960s pirate radio stations operating just beyond British territorial waters offered bored teens access to a wealth of pop music. The BBC was suddenly plunged into an unpleasant world of competition.
Naturally the first thing the bureaucrats in the British government attempted to do was to crush the competition. A Committee was established, and it criticized the commercial TV channel for not providing enough “uplifting” entertainment. Pirate radio ships were repeatedly harassed and their transmissions jammed. But one can only attempt to stem the tide for a brief moment or two. Eventually even the obtuse bureaucrats had to admit that times were changing.
And so the BBC had to deal with the very unpleasant fact of competition, placing it in a quandary from which it has never subsequently escaped.
Here was the dilemma: as the BBC made everyone who had a radio or television in the UK pay for a license fee regardless of whether or not they actually listened to or watched BBC output, they had to cater to everyone’s tastes. But the supposed raison d’etre of the BBC in a world of lowbrow competition was to produce content that commercial channels wouldn’t provide. Which meant highbrow content. But it couldn’t produce too much highbrow content without being criticized for ignoring the tastes of the majority who were being made to pay the annual license fee.
As we humans are notoriously incapable of consistency-checking, this fundamental dilemma went largely unnoticed by everyone concerned. British people were told they should be patriotic and proud to be charged an arbitrary annual fee, and the thousands of people working at the BBC simply ignored the inherent contradiction entirely.
But ignoring a problem doesn’t resolve it and doesn’t make it go away.
No British government wants to let the BBC become independent by charging for its content, because that would let it escape its duty to be a useful source of “truth” in aid of government policy. But people are increasingly unhappy being forced to pay for something they now use rarely or not at all. In a world of streaming content, the BBC has become a quaint relic. Few people want to be forced to pay a significant amount of money every year merely in order to keep a relic afloat.
The BBC’s dilemma is an inevitable consequence arising from the fact nobody ever bothered to think coherently about the problem decades ago. It was always obvious what was going to happen, from the moment the first commercial broadcaster was licensed to operate in the UK. But because we humans can’t perform consistency-checking, nobody noticed.
And even today, very few people in the UK can correctly perceive the fundamental problem for the BBC. That’s why all the activities of the BBC over the last twenty years have been so inconsistent, piecemeal, and ineffectual.
Today the BBC provides too many services to too few people to be viable. Its content is often embarrassing. Its News service still provides valuable propaganda for the British government (and for other governments that periodically manipulate it with astonishing ease) and so the BBC limps on, adrift in a world it neither understands nor can compete in.
It ought to be easy enough to see where this tale inevitably leads, a decade or so hence. But apparently not easy enough for many in the UK actually to see it.
If only we could perform consistency-checking. What a different world we’d live in. But let’s praise the BBC for at least providing us with such an excruciatingly clear case study in human cognitive limitations.